I flew my last Lightning mission in June 1988. I almost remember it well. I say 'almost', as in between I've spent 1200 hours flying its successor, the Tornado F.3, and latterly 200 hours on the French Air Force's premier fighter, the Mirage 2000.
With the sands of time and the gradual depletion of memory cells, I can no longer remember every event during this last flight. I recall it was a '3 vs many', a woolly term which means 3 Lightnings versus several others - Tornado F.3's from 29 Sqn and some F-15's - over the North Sea. One lasting memory was the weather - typically British! Very low cloud with poor visibility, clear above 3,000 feet. Binbrook..... t'was ever thus.
I claimed a 'Fox 3' (simulated guns kill) on an F-15, no mean feat in an aircraft twice its age. I now realise the chances are that I'd been shot several minutes before with a long range 'Fox 1' Sparrow missile. Not fitted with a radar warning receiver, I had no way of telling, but for my part I hold on to the dream that he never saw me.
Nowadays, I still fly a single-seat Mach 2.0 fighter with around the same weight and fuel as the beloved F.3. For me, this was the ultimate Lightning, having the same weapon capacity as the F.6 but much more fun to fly, being so light. Don't believe the stories that the F.2A was the best!! However, similarities in size and weight are where the comparisons finish.
The Mirage 2000 is, to all intents and purposes, a modern Mirage III, wing and fuselage shape being very similar. The biggest advantage of the Mirage 2000 is its electronic 'fly-by-wire' system, which allows carefree handling at any height or speed. I can hear people saying "You could do that in a Lightning" and to some extent this is true, but over enthusiasm could produce some extremely novel combat manoeuvres! With the M2000, the pilot can make whatever demands he likes on the controls and the aircraft will give its optimum performance.
For example, with the centre-line tank full, the 'G' limit is +6 and the computer will restrict you from pulling any more. Should you need more in an emergency, you pull very hard on the stick and this overrides the limiter. Once the tank is empty (about the same time as the Lightning ventral emptied) you then have no limitation except the 9G airframe limit. It begs the question, what would the Lightning have been like with fly-by-wire? Would the aircraft have still been able to perform its classic rotation climb? I heard someone say that on a good 'rote' the AoA (angle of attack) was probably around 35°. The Mirage is limited to 29° AoA.
The Mirage 2000 is powered by one extremely powerful SNECMA engine. Like the Lightning, flying at 50,000 feet is no problem, with fuel consumption considerably improved (around half that of the Lightning). Talking of fuel, the M2000 employs a fixed refuelling probe, this time visible from the cockpit! With a fuel load of about 7,500 lbs, it takes on fuel at the same rate.
In the cockpit, there are big changes. Similarly on the left hand side are all the radar functions, with the antenna elevation control well placed on top of the throttle. There is no radar hand controller - a sign of progress. There are two radios, one UHF/VHF with 'Have-quick' installed and one UHF box. Have-quick is a classified radio that allows you to speak whilst an enemy is trying to jam you. In the same area is the parachute handle. This is an optional extra, as you can have either a hook, chute or flares. Obviously it pays to know what you've got prior to the landing!
The biggest change must be in the head-up display area. I can't imagine that it would have been possible to retro-fit the Lightning with a HUD, due to the front cockpit shape and lack of room. As far as I recall, the only serious upgrade for the Lightning was the adaptation of the AIM-9L Sidewinder. This was not only to improve the aircraft's capability, but also to allow the Lightning to use the ACMI range at Deci in Sardinia; the limiting factor being that, to use the air to air range, you need to mount a pod which is identical to the AIM-9 Sidewinder on to the aircraft in order to downlink the necessary information. For many reasons it never happened, no doubt cost being one. Also, the AIM is virtually self-contained on its launcher rail, whereas the Lightning's Red Top and Firestreaks were fed by all sorts of goodies from the under-fuselage weapons pack. As far as I know, no other later modifications were ever envisaged. A radar warning receiver would have been essential had the Lightning ever gone into a modern war.
Back to the comparison. The Lightning radar display was literally pre-historic compared to the modern fighter. I can recall those stress-inducing missions on the LTF - one v one PI's. You would start line abreast and GCI would say "...65 target, turn port heading between 090 and 180, fighter maintain heading", then there would follow the inbound headings to point you back together, the idea being that, as the student, you had no idea of the target's heading. Now put yourself in the 'hot seat' - you're 25 miles apart, closing at 18 miles a minute. The clock starts now - you've 1 minute 20 seconds to work out the target's heading, height, speed and crossing angle. Then put yourself on the right geometry to make either a shot or a visual ident - OK?
Well, in the time it took to read the last sentence, the target has closed five miles and you still haven't found him on the radar. Any second now and the LTF megalomaniac in the right hand seat is going to give you your first clout on the knee - if you're lucky! Your left hand is moving the scanner elevation control in and out, forcing the scanner to search that vast North Sea sky - not too fast or you'll miss him - and remember, the nearer he gets, the more you need to go 'heads-in' and check your own heading, height and speed.
We must be at least 18 miles by now - there he is - yes - that little blip (a fraction brighter and thicker than all of the other noise) is the target. ACTION - well, in traditional LTF style at 18 miles it's all getting a bit rushed - hit the stop watch to get a time running, then watch the target's displacement over five miles and try to work out the target's heading and at the same time use the angle of the radar antenna multiplied by the range and then you have his height.
At the same time, you need to sort out your own height, putting yourself 1,000 feet below the target. Now, as your aircraft goes up or down, the radar picture changes, so once again you're thinking of moving the scanner to keep painting the target. About now we must have hit the final turn keys - the moment of truth. These are a set of keys used by fighters to end up behind the target in a good position to fire.
Without complicating matters, for a 180 x 8 (that is to say a target 180° - ie. opposite you, but displaced left or right by 8 miles) the key figure was 40° left or right at 12 miles. As soon as the target hits that 40° line, turn 60° angle of bank. If you've made a good assessment of his heading, it will work like clockwork - you hold your bank turn through 180 and bingo - you end up 1½ miles line astern if you thought it was a 180 - but actually he was on a 130° crossing angle and as soon as you turn, all of your turn keys will be wrong and you'll need to play the final turn more carefully - but that's another long story! Confused? I know I was.
Now jump ahead 30 years.
Put yourself in a Mirage 2000. In excess of 50 miles, I get a contact, maybe a few. Immediately I know his height (it's marked on the radar). I place my marker over the plot - press once and it goes into track while scan telling me his speed, height and crossing angle. I can also see what his IFF is at the press of a button. All of this appears on my HUD and is repeated on the radar scope. Marginally easier than the Lightning, I'm sure you would agree, plus I'm not looking to get behind him. All I need to do is fire my radar missile at him from around 20 miles - piece of gateaux!!